The next screw-up by the NFL's replacement referees: the 2012 election

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News

The black swan has arrived—only it turns out to be black-and-white striped.

That’s right—the unpredictable, unexpected event that will upend the presidential campaign has happened in front of tens of millions of eyes in the form of the National Football League’s replacement refs, who have turned America’s favorite pastime into something between a farce and a tragedy.

“What?” I hear you asking. “Do you seriously contend that frustration over football games can have a powerful, even decisive political effect?”

Ask former President Bill Clinton. Specifically, ask him if he now regrets ignoring the advice I gave him 18 years ago.

In the fall of 1994, I was, for some unfathomable reason, invited to schmooze with the president in the Rose Garden. It was a week or so after a labor dispute had shut down Major League Baseball, threatening the postseason.

In a whimsical mood, I asked him whether he would consider invoking the Taft-Hartley Act—which restricted the power of labor unions—and order the games to resume. After all, the 80-day cooling-off period mandated by the law would take baseball safely through the playoffs and the World Series.

The president looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses (which may account for the fact that this was the last time I was invited to exchange ideas with the president). He took no action, and the rest of the baseball season was canceled.

What happened that November? An avalanche of votes, cast by what was described as a cohort of “angry white men,” turned both houses of Congress over to the Republicans and set the stage for all that followed—from a government shutdown to impeachment.

And why were these white men so angry? Was it just a coincidence that, for the first time in 90 years, the World Series had not taken place? Or was it Clinton’s (unusual) failure to make political hay out of an opportunity—one President Barack Obama did not fail to see when he nominated to the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor, who as a federal judge issued the 1995 injunction that ended the strike?


So with that in mind, consider the possible political impact of the Keystone Kops officiating at recent games. The end of this week’s “Monday Night Football” on ESPN—with one ref signaling “Touchdown!” the other signaling “Interception—touchback!” followed by a 10-minute conference, followed by a lunatic affirmation of the call worthy of Inspector Clouseau “solving” a murder—became the lead story in newspapers and on television all over America. When you remember that pro football is far more popular than baseball, it is absolutely indisputable that this issue will dominate the national conversation far more than pesky distractions such as the economy, violence in the Middle East and taxes.

The question is, how will this now-dominant question affect the presidential race? And here, there are two possibilities.

First, it could further sour the national mood, posing a clear and present danger to Obama. The pessimism about our condition—a large majority believes the country is on the wrong track—is rarely good news for an incumbent. And, in this case, the unhappiness with the state of football cuts across lines of race, age and gender. (Paul Ryan has already attempted to exploit this possibility by comparing Obama’s performance to that of a replacement ref.)

The second possibility is that it will help the president by underscoring the “1 percent vs. the 99 percent” argument. The National Football League is awash with money, resembling nothing so much as Scrooge McDuck taking his ease in a swimming pool full of cash. Its TV contract alone brings it—I may be a bit off with the exact figure here—10 gazillion dollars a year. And the monetary dispute with the league’s officials—who have been locked out since June—is less than the players’ budget for bottled water.

Seriously, when you have Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—who is to organized labor what Donald Trump is to humility—complaining about the nonunion replacements, something has changed in the zeitgeist.

So which way will this crucial, overriding, historic, game-changing, defining-moment issue break?

We do not know. What is certain is that it will have an immeasurably significant impact on the outcome of the presidential campaign. And should the dispute be settled by the time you read this, fear not: There is an army of us out there ready to find the next crucial, overriding, historic, game-changing, defining-moment issue.

That’s what we do—just like sharks gotta swim, and bats gotta fly.